Howdy, and welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where the call coming from inside the house is from director/screenwriter Robin Shanea Williams. Williams has that rare gift of not only being able to write a compelling narrative, but also having the directorial vision to bring that narrative to life on screen (check out her Vimeo page here). So it was with that in mind that I was particularly interested to check out a movie she loves to see that might have inspired her.
The film she nominated, Fred Walton’s When A Stranger Calls, is an intriguing pick because it’s one that gets talked about quite a bit, but in a very narrow focus. We all likely know about the basic premise, where babysitter Jill (Carol Kane) is pulling her first stint in a new household where the kids have already gone to bed. She’s settling in nicely until she starts getting enigmatic calls from a strange man (Tony Beckly) asking, “Have you checked the children?” Naturally, it’s not long before she gets the police involved, and one traced call later they realize the caller is in the very same house where she’s babysitting.
Now, I was aware that this reveal happens fairly early in the movie, but I figured the rest of the story would be some kind of extended cat and mouse between Jill and her pursuer. As it turns out, Walton gives us something very different. We’ll get into that in a bit (and this is your obligatory SPOILER ALERT), but as usual, Robin, first I’m interested in learning about your first time watching this film. How much did you know about it going into your inaugural viewing?
I knew absolutely nothing about it during the first viewing. I honestly can’t specifically remember the first time that I saw When A Stranger Calls. It was definitely on cable TV during my teen years in the ’90s and at the time, honestly it didn’t leave much of an impression. Especially since that was the time when the likes of Michael Myers, Freddy, Jason, and Candyman were the slasher kings that dominated horror. All the slasher flicks I was too scared to see in the ’80s, I bravely attempted to watch in the ’90s. When A Stranger Calls is a very different kind of horror film and I had yet to appreciate its brilliance.
The second time I saw When A Stranger Calls was about seven years ago. I remember reading somewhere that it inspired the iconic opening scene of Scream and I was intrigued about giving it a solid revisit as an adult. I was more than pleasantly surprised by the revisit—I really, really liked the film and found it both extremely bizarre and deeply unsettling. As I did more research, I learned it was loosely inspired by the urban folk tale called “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs,” which was an urban legend I was very familiar with during my childhood and teen years. I remember we always “knew” someone who knew someone who knew someone who was a babysitter who was attacked by a man creeping in the house.
It’s interesting that you mention how it inspired the opening sequence from Scream, because most of the discussion I see about When a Stranger Calls would be like if we only ever talked about Scream within the context of Drew Barrymore’s death scene, or if we only discussed Black Christmas based exclusively on Billy’s obscene phone calls. And after watching one of the original trailers from the movie, it seems even then they wanted us to focus on that opening sequence. Do you think they were packaging the movie to draw in the crowds who loved John Carpenter’s Halloween, which had just come out the year before?
I think they were for sure. It seems like it would be strategic on the part of the promo team to find a way to lure in audiences who loved Halloween. But I’m sure many of those audience members expecting something in the vein of Halloween were very disappointed. But you’re right, if we only discussed Scream based on its opening scene, we would definitely be leaving what makes that film so profound on the chopping block and that would be blasphemous. And of course, we can’t forget proto-slasher Black Christmas, which was pioneering in so many ways and if we reduced Black Christmas to those creepy phone calls, we’d definitely be doing the significance of the film a disservice. I think that’s why I chose WASC for this reason—I even wrote a messy draft of an unpublished essay about it called “You Used To Call Me On My Landline” (I know, I know), just because I wish there was more discussion about the film as a whole. I think love it or hate it, it makes some very interesting narrative choices worthy of closer analysis.
Honestly, I think we should scratch this interview and just publish your essay! But I agree that there is so much more to this movie than what gets discussed. I was actually very pleasantly surprised at the turn the movie makes. Although, “pleasant” may not be the precise word to use for a film that incorporates child murder.
That’s right, folks, the movie goes there. After a brief fake out scare where Jill opens the door to find private detective John Clifford (Charles Durning), we learn that the caller, a man named Curt Duncan, had already killed the two children hours ago and was lying in wait for Jill. The film then flashes forward seven years, and the film’s entire second act is spent following Clifford hunting down Duncan, who had recently escaped from the local mental institution. But this time, Clifford isn’t looking to capture Duncan, but rather kill him on a bounty provided by the father of the children he killed. Robin, what did you think about the film’s pivot to focus on Clifford and Duncan?
The pivot is exactly why this film needs and deserves closer attention. It’s so rare in films like these where we don’t immediately delve into the world of the survivor. We usually follow their journey through PTSD and putting their lives back together. Not really the case here. The decision to follow Duncan and Clifford is intriguing and also very jarring, especially upon a first viewing. I think you have to give the film credit for attempting something very different in the second half. I’m not sure if I loved this pivot or if it completely works, but I definitely find it interesting and was in suspense trying to figure out where this film was going upon my first watch. Especially following Duncan—watching this psychopath interact with other people had my nerves shot the entire time. I also didn’t feel comfortable following him. Like, he killed children, and I cringed at the thought of what he might do next.
I think the film is trying to make some interesting statements about mental health and the impacts of violence through the converging paths that Duncan and Clifford take throughout the second act, but I agree that I’m not convinced they got it fully right. In Duncan’s case, for instance, I got mixed thematic messages from the scene in the bar where he keeps harassing a woman named Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst) until another bar patron intervenes and violently beats him. What was your take on that scene?
You know, honestly, I don’t know what the filmmaker really wanted us to feel from the scene and I definitely see why you think it may be mixed messaging. I mean, I see this very dangerous man harassing this woman and when he is beaten, I personally didn’t feel sympathy for him, because I know what he did to those children at the beginning of the film and I’m terrified of what he may do next. But it seems by showing him as an escaped mental patient being homeless and lonely, perhaps we are supposed to grapple with his humanity (or what’s left of it). Maybe Walton wants us to reckon with the human monster in this complicated way, but by the way the film is structured, I don’t think it’s possible—at least for me. What I find most unsettling and perhaps even haunting about the scene and the scenes that followed is Duncan himself because of the really terrific and terrifying performance of Tony Beckley, who just gets right under the skin in many of those scenes.
Also, I just want to touch upon something you said previously about the converging paths of Duncan and Clifford. I find this to be the more fascinating subplot: Clifford is contracted to hunt Duncan down and kill him, and perhaps I wish Walton gave us a few more shades of the complicated darkness that Clifford is wrestling with. I mean, we see a change in Clifford, but if it was heightened a bit more like in Halloween where we see how studying Michael Myers over the years has had an effect on Dr. Loomis’ own mental and emotional state, it would elevate the film even more.
But honestly, even with the “problems” with the narrative of WASC, it oddly only adds to why I like this film so much.
I don’t think Walton is trying to offer us any easy answers, as the time spent with Duncan and Clifford highlights how often we fail each other on a societal basis. When Clifford is at the mental hospital, even he’s taken aback by the fact that Duncan had been given over 30 electroshock treatments. Later, when Duncan is harassing Tracy, nobody does anything productive to help her until what seems like the local lout beats him to hell in front of everyone.
Between the framing scenes with Jill, we just sort of wallow in how broken the whole situation is, and Clifford is neck-deep in it. I get the sense this whole thing has taken its toll on him. He’s jaded, he’s downright mean to Tracy, and it doesn’t seem like he gets any satisfaction in what he’s doing. His obsession with it has just gotten to the point where he just can’t see any other way forward other than killing Duncan. I don’t think Walton is trying to portray him as heroic, but I don’t think he’s judging him harshly, either.
Honestly, by the time we get back to Jill, who we see in the intervening seven years has built herself a nice little life with a career and a family, I was convinced we’re being set up for a big tragedy. What’s your take on the direction the film takes in the final act?
Oh yeah, the first time I saw it, I was really stunned that we’d even see Jill. Especially since the second act is such an unusual departure. I love that it’s structured like bookends—the opening and the ending is with Jill. I think portraying Jill as this survivor who was able to move forward in her life with a happy family was significant, but as soon as she receives that call from Duncan at the restaurant, we also see how much she has suffered emotionally over the course of those seven years by her understandably horrified reaction. I suddenly felt a sense of unease over what was coming. The final showdown in Jill’s home combined with the opening scene are the elements of the film that have held up the strongest.
Once we see Jill again, I also wanted more about Jill and more about her life after that horrible night and the steps she took to get where she is. Yes, it would have made it a more conventional film, but it also makes me feel like something was missing. I’m not sure if Walton was going with the element of surprise by “withholding” Jill’s story in the second act, but honestly it does make for a better film that Jill returns in act three. Jill can’t really escape the horrible thing she experienced, and Duncan can’t escape the horrible things he’s done—it’s inevitable that their paths must cross again. The story needs this kind of resolution and the audience deserves it, too.
I agree that we could have used more about Jill, maybe told as a parallel narrative with Duncan/Clifford’s story that converges for what we get in the final act. I think that would have further pushed the themes of violence as something that’s almost physiological, infecting not only perpetrator and victim, but also those in their periphery like Tracy and Clifford. Even Clifford’s cop friend Charlie (Superfly himself, Ron O’Neal) finds himself susceptible as he reluctantly aids Clifford’s quest for vengeance.
But while not a perfect film, it certainly leaves an impression. What are your thoughts on how When a Stranger Calls has ultimately impacted the genre and the cultural consciousness as a whole?
Honestly, I’m not sure how I would even feel about this film in the third act if Jill wasn’t there. It also sets the film up for a really strong sequel, When A Stranger Calls Back, which I also love. It may even arguably be the better-made film, but not the more significant or memorable one. What I love about the sequel is that Jill and Clifford team up to help another woman who is victimized. Also, we should mention that in 2006 When A Stranger Calls was given a pretty solid remake.
So I feel that the original film has imprinted itself in our cultural consciousness. The “we've traced the call, it’s coming from inside the house” line is often said today. I see it on Twitter all the time—even if people don’t even know where the line came from. I think this film did to telephones (pre-cell phone, pre-caller ID) what Hitchcock did with showers in Psycho—using everyday necessities we rely on to tap into our deepest and darkest fears. During that prehistoric time before caller ID, I remember how annoying and sometimes unsettling prank calls could be. I’ll never forget when I was a kid answering a phone call and a person on the other end was breathing hard and giggling maniacally and it made me scared to pick up the phone for a while after that. Tapping into those fears really resonated with the time period, but even if the technology has evolved, our inner fears of it continue. There are thrillers and horror films now being made about our deep mistrust of computers, the internet, robots turning on us, etc. But the very basic fear that resonates in When A Stranger Calls is one that remains relevant today—what happens to us emotionally and mentally when we are personally attacked by “monsters,” and what as a society do we do to prevent and/or treat those who become monstrous?